Previous month:
August 2019
Next month:
October 2019

losing it at the movies: jaws (steven spielberg, 1975)

Picking this up after a break of three months, this is the seventh in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.

In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of Jaws:

It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you. The film belongs to the pulpiest sci-fi monster-movie tradition, yet it stands some of the old conventions on their head.... When the three protagonists are in their tiny boat, trying to find the shark that has been devouring people, you feel that Robert Shaw, the malevolent old shark hunter, is so manly that he wants to get them all killed; he’s so manly he’s homicidal.... The director, Steven Spielberg, sets up bare-chested heroism as a joke and scores off it all through the movie.... The fool on board isn’t the chief of police, or the bookman, either. It’s Shaw, the obsessively masculine fisherman, who thinks he’s got to prove himself by fighting the shark practically single-handed. The high point of the film’s humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they’re tougher than anybody. The shark’s cavernous jaws demonstrate how little his toughness finally adds up to. This primal-terror comedy quickly became one of the top-grossing films of all time.

Kael also told the following anecdote:

While having a drink with an older Hollywood director, I said that I’d been amazed by the assurance with which Steven Spielberg, the young director of Jaws, had toyed with the film frame. The older director said, “He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.”

I thought about that latter quote while watching Jaws again. I'm not positive I understand the point, and it's likely we don't see the revolutionary nature of Spielberg's work because in the last 44 years, it's become the norm. Still, let me give it a try. Spielberg blocks his scenes for the camera, not for the stage. He uses the camera as an aid in that blocking. He doesn't simply tell the actors where to stand ... he tells them where to move within a shot, and then moves the camera to solidify what he wants on the screen. Sometimes you notice what he is doing, but other times, he makes what we are watching seem "natural", as if no one was actually directing. His skill at changing points of view allows the audience to feel a part of first one character and then another, along with the occasional omniscient angle. In the case of Jaws, credit is due to editor Verna Fields, but often, it seems that Spielberg is editing in the camera so there is nothing left to do in the editing room.

Jaws is one of four Spielberg films I consider classics, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (my favorite), Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. Yet Jaws also changed movie history in what seems to me to be unfortunate ways. As Wikipedia notes, "Jaws was the prototypical summer blockbuster, regarded as a watershed moment in motion picture history, and it won several awards for its music and editing. It was the highest-grossing film until the release of Star Wars in 1977. Both films were pivotal in establishing the modern Hollywood business model, which pursues high box-office returns from action and adventure films with simple high-concept premises, released during the summer in thousands of theaters and heavily advertised." Jaws is a great film, and it wasn't the last great one of Spielberg's career. But this movie marks the beginning of the end of the "New Hollywood" era that began with Bonnie and Clyde. There have been many great American movies since Jaws, and however you define "New Hollywood", it still had plenty of life. But I've spent a lot of my life blaming Star Wars for what happened to Hollywood, and it's only fair to note that Jaws was there first.

Since this is a Pauline Kael-related post, I should include a link to one of her most famous essays that addresses some of the above: "Why Are Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers" from 1980.

#91 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


music friday: concert history

This one's making the rounds, so I'll jump in. What's your concert history?

First concert: Judy Collins, 1967

Last concert: Pink, April

Next concert: Sleater-Kinney, November

Best concert: Any of the Springsteen concerts I saw in 1978

Worst concert: probably the Winter Brothers in San Diego. Forget what year, in a big arena, sound awful, left early.

Seen the most: Bruce

Haven't seen but want to: Elvis, 1968


geezer cinema: downton abbey (michael engler, 2019)

If this were a consumer guide, I'd have the easiest job in the world. If you liked and watched the TV series Downton Abbey, you will like this movie. If you didn't like the series, don't bother with the movie. The only tricky area is for people who have never seen Downton Abbey but are curious. My suggestion would be to start with the TV show ... I'm not sure that the movie will appeal to someone who doesn't already have a history with the characters. But the film is more like a bonus episode than it is a standalone.

The differences are still worth noting. Primarily, Downton Abbey has always looked scrumptious, and it benefits from a big, wide, screen. (We saw it in Dolby Cinema, which wasn't all that noticeable for sound but which made scrumptious look even more so.) A couple of the new characters are interesting, largely because of the actors involved. Still, it's Downton Abbey, and no one acts too much out character, so it's a feel-good movie for the fans. Given the fairly conservative nature of the show, it is no surprise that there are no drastic changes here.

The similarities are such that I can cheat and cut-and-paste from what I wrote about the TV finale in 2016:

Julian Fellowes humanized the rich upstairs and the working downstairs, and he gave equal time to servants and royalty alike. The gradual progression of time meant we got a lot of talk about how we had to accept the future, which for the rich meant taking better care of their crops and starting new automotive businesses. But progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions.

More problematic was Tom, whose social position leaped far beyond Barrow’s paltry desires. As the show began, Tom was the chauffeur, involved in socialist politics. He was quite the firebrand. Eventually, though, he marries Lady Sybil, and by the finale, he has long been established as one of the family, entrusted with Lady Mary to the managing of the estate, his socialism a thing of the past. His co-option makes the Crawleys seem liberal for their class, but they make no real concessions outside of accepting this one person. The class structure remains.

I could watch any random episode with at least some pleasure ... the dialogue was often entertaining, and much of the acting was excellent. But I had to turn off my brain, because if I thought about the show for more than five minutes, I always returned to the way Fellowes took the side of the upper class.

All of the above is true of the movie. Barrow experiences a personal moment that is heartening. Tom's past as a socialist is used for a weak and unnecessary side plot (this matters because in general, things move too quickly in the movie ... all of the characters get their turns, but for many of them, those turns are far too brief).

Of the newcomers, two stand out. Imelda Staunton, a veteran who I loved in Another Year, is the latest member of acting royalty to share dialogue with Maggie Smith. And Tuppence Middleton, one of my many favorites from Sense8, has a substantial role that seems to guarantee her presence in any future sequels.

I've gone on long enough. Once every three years seems about right to me ... I really don't need more seasons of this show.


the story of a cheat (sacha guitry, 1936)

This is the third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 3 is called "Cahiers du Cinéma Week":

The first in a series celebrating challenges from past seasons, this challenge comes to us from Monsieur Flynn's original Letterboxd Season Challenge: 2015-16. The original description:

"The top 100 most essential films of 78 French film directors, critics and industry executives. The list was compiled for and published in the French Cahiers du cinéma film magazine. Not surprising that I do tend to agree with them at most of these, especially given my somewhat French taste in cinema."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Cahiers du Cinema's 100 Films to an Ideal Library.

I believe the Cahiers du Cinéma top 100 was published in 2008. With The Story of a Cheat, I have now seen 80. (Highest-ranked film I haven't seen: The Mother and the Whore.)

This is the first Sacha Guitry film I have seen, which once again speaks to the usefulness of this challenge, which takes me places I haven't been. The Story of a Cheat is an innovative and enjoyable movie, if not unique then at least unusual. Though released in 1936, the film is in many ways a silent film with additions. Dialogue barely occurs ... everything we see is narrated by a man (The Cheat, played by Guitry) as he writes his memoirs. Real people act out the events in his story, interspersed occasionally with newsreel footage. It barely takes any time at all for this technique to seem perfect, with Guitry's Cheat in control of all the characters due to the presence of his voice overs. (The IMDB claims this was the first movie with voice over narration ... I'm not sure that's true.)

The Story of a Cheat is playful without being overbearing. I suppose there's a message, but honestly, I don't think it matters. It's better to simply enjoy the raconteur showing his lovable scoundrel nature. The Cheat, we learn, was one of an extended family of twelve ... when he stole a little money to buy marbles, he was forced to sit at the dinner table and watch everyone eat while his plate remained bare. The mushrooms everyone enjoyed turned out to be poisonous; everyone in the family died except The Cheat. When relatives stole his inheritance, he concluded that one would get on better in life if they were less than honest. The picaresque tale that follows demonstrates how, with scoundrels as well as the honest folks, life has its ups and downs.


bruce springsteen is 70 years old today

Nothing new here ... check out the posts tagged "Bruce Springsteen" for the stuff I've written over the years. Two videos I've posted many times:

First, "Dream Baby Dream". My instructions are always the same: look at the faces of the fans.

And second, the song I've always associated with Bruce talking to his fans. "I'm comin' to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man." From the Darkness tour, 1978:

And a bonus. This came up on Friday ... I'll post a different link today. Play this at my wake:

I got a picture of you in my locket
I keep it close to my heart
It's a light shining in my breast
Leading me through the dark
Seven days, seven candles
In my window lighting your way
Your favorite record's on the turntable
I drop the needle and pray (turn it up)
Band's countin' out midnight (turn it up)
Floor's rumblin' loud (turn it up)
Singer's callin' up daylight (turn it up)
And waitin' for that shout from the crowd (turn it up)
Waitin' for that shout from the crowd (turn it up)
Waitin' for that shout from the crowd (turn it up)
Waitin' for that shout from the crowd (turn it up)
Waitin' for that shout from the crowd (turn it up)
Waitin' for that shout from the crowd
Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up
Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up, turn it up


geezer cinema

Time for an update on Geezer Cinema. We've seen ten movies now, one a week, taking turns picking the movies, starting with my wife Robin.

One thing I hadn't anticipated is that in general, these movies are bit below the standard I try to set. While I no longer include my ratings in movie posts, I still track them, and on a scale of ten, I usually average a bit over 7. But the Geezer movies so far are a bit under 7. I think I know why. All ten movies so far are recent, since we're going to the theater. I tend to give higher ratings to older movies. Plus, there are only so many current movies to pick from, whereas the rest of the time, I can pick from the entire history of film. In any event, each of us has picked five movies so far, with identical average ratings of 6.6. This is a sign that my wife knows how to pick them ... since I am the one giving the ratings, you'd think I'd rate my choices higher than hers, but that's not the case.

Here are the first ten Geezer Cinema choices:

Robin's picks:

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
Spider Man: Far from Home
Hobbs & Shaw
Angel Has Fallen
Official Secrets

My picks:

Booksmart
The Farewell
Blinded by the Light
Toy Story 4
Hustlers

One unsurprising note: Robin's picks average just under 126 minutes, mine average 105.6.

Here is a letterboxd list with all our movies. This will be ongoing:

Geezer Cinema List


geezer cinema/film fatales #61: hustlers (lorene scafaria, 2019)

I have to admit, I was hoping for more. Hustlers is perfectly acceptable, but I thought it would be really good, based on the reviews. Jennifer Lopez is fine ... like the movie, there's nothing wrong with her performance, but I was expecting something Oscar-worthy, and I didn't see it. (She's not even the main actress ... she's got a shot at Best Supporting Actress, but Constance Wu is the lead.) She has a star power the rest of the actors lack ... when she makes her first appearance at the strip club, wearing a thong, and men start throwing money at her, it's believable, and there is more to her in Hustlers than her ass. But again, not earthshaking.

I thought I would be watching a movie about women's friendships with each other, and it's there, but it's more toxic than I expected. They take care of each other when things are good, and when the financial crisis hits, they band together to support each other. Banding together means getting back at men, and the men deserve it, but there's less of a revenge angle than you might think. I don't know, it all felt a bit by the numbers.

Looking at the above, I see that I wanted one kind of movie and I got another. Ultimately, that's on me. Hustlers is OK, and you might think it is better than OK. I was disappointed, though. Shout out to Cardi B, who made the most of her brief appearances ... I wanted to see more from her.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


demonicus (jay woelfel, 2001)

This is the second film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 2 is called "Sword and Sorcery Week":

A genre that may seem simplistic and finite, yet is actually filled with unlimited potential for entertainment and allegory. I would suggest trying to stray away from the Lord of the Rings series for this challenge, but really, if you live under a rock and haven't seen them, you probably should use this as an opportunity to do so.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Sword and Sorcery film.

If memory serves, I chose movies for this challenge by looking at suggested possibilities and selecting the shortest movies that were available to me, whether by streaming or my owning the film. Two movies on the Sword and Sorcery list came in at 72 minutes ... Demonicus was on Amazon. Voila!

It was pretty awful. On the one hand, challenges like this offer an opportunity to watch something that might not have otherwise gotten my attention. On the other hand, there's a reason I didn't know Demonicus ... it's a bad movie in a genre I tend to ignore, not because the genre stinks but rather because it's not my cup of tea. (Of the 161 films on the Sword and Sorcery list, I've only seen 8, including Demonicus.)

The plot isn't exactly complicated ... Wikipedia sums it up in two sentences ("A group of young students lost in the Italian Alps become victims of an ancient Gladiator curse. One of the students becomes possessed and hunts down the rest.") It got an R rating for gore. Apparently, there is a director's cut (!). I don't know which version I saw.

The acting is competent, which isn't guaranteed for these kinds of pictures. It cost $40,000, and I guess you could say that every penny is on the screen. Not much is known about the people involved. Director Jay Woelfel co-directed a brief 4-minute proposal for a new Battlestar Galactica put together by Richard Hatch (this was before the Ron Moore breakthrough). Actress Venesa Talor made some soft porn movies and made some records, including the immortal "Who Do I Have to Blow?" (she's a better singer than actor). That's about it. It's "better" than Robot Monster, but I won't ever watch it again, while I catch up with Robot Monster every couple of years.